2011 BMW F 800 R

Road Test Review

Whenever I cram too many alphanumeric motorcycle models into a conversation, my girlfriend, Carrie, rolls her eyes and says, “It’s all beeps and whistles, dude.” I can hardly blame her. Each manufacturer uses its own arcane coding system. Give some gearheads a list of bikes—say, NT700V, GSX-R750, S 1000 RR and FLHTCUSE—and they’ll classify them by country of origin, manufacturer, engine type and style quicker than Dustin Hoffman counted cards in Rain Man. But even dedicated enthusiasts, or dazed-and-confused editors like me, can get their moto-Scrabble tiles mixed up.

In typical German fashion, BMW adheres to a regimented model categorization system. According to my decoder ring, the first letter indicates engine type. The number that follows is engine displacement, usually rounded up to the nearest hundred. And the final letter(s) refer to model type. To wit, the 2011 BMW F 800 R: “F” tells us it’s powered by a parallel twin, “800” is its 798cc displacement rounded up and “R” stands for roadster. Others might call it a streetfighter (world champion stunt rider Christian Pfeiffer helped develop the F 800 R, and he uses a modified version in competition), a naked bike or a sport standard. BMW has a knack for making versatile engines.

Its legendary R 1200 boxer twin has powered everything from the globe-trotting BMW GS Adventure to a boulevard cruiser, the not-so-dearly departed R 1200 C. The new F 800 R joins other F-bikes in the lineup: F 800 ST sport tourer, dual-sport F 800 GS adventure tourer and street-oriented F 650 GS adventure tourer (which, despite the name, displaces 798cc…so much for Teutonic fastidiousness). The half-faired F 800 S sport model got a pink slip for 2011.

The 798cc parallel twin in the F 800 R, which has a slightly oversquare bore/stroke of 82mm by 75.6mm, is canted forward 30 degrees. That puts more weight on the front wheel and frees up room for the airbox (as does the underseat fuel tank, which also centralizes mass). A 12.0:1 compression ratio necessitates premium fuel. Similar to BMW’s four-cylinder K-bikes, the F 800 R has dual overhead cams that actuate four valves per cylinder via cam followers. This light, low-friction design reduces wear on the valve train, which means longer maintenance intervals. Exactly how long is hard to say; BMW says valve adjustment intervals are variable and monitored by computer. Lubrication is a semi-dry sump design, with two oil pumps and an integrated oil tank.

To mimic the sound and feel of a boxer twin, the F 800 R has an even firing sequence. Both pistons move up and down together, with one combustion cycle for each rotation of the crankshaft. BMW uses a unique system to address primary and secondary imbalances. Instead of a chain or gear-driven balance shaft, which can be noisy, a compensation rod is attached to the center of the crankshaft. Connected to the rod is a horizontal balance arm, and together their mass matches that of the pistons and rocker arms. By moving up and down opposite the pistons, the compensation rod offsets untoward vibration. Despite the claimed advantages of this setup, the F 800 R is quite buzzy, not unlike its siblings, the F 800 GS (Rider, January 2009) and F 650 GS (which I rode for a week on the Edelweiss Alps Extreme Tour; Rider, October 2010). The F 800 R is smooth at low revs, but once the tach needle sweeps past 5,000 rpm it begins to feel frenetic, like a teenager hopped up on Red Bull. Vibration is felt in the grips, seat, tank and pegs all the way up to the 9,000-rpm redline. Tiresome and annoying, I sometimes ran a gear high to keep engine speed low. Fortunately, in sixth gear the engine spins just below 5,000 rpm at 75 mph, which allows cruising in harmonious bliss rather than harmonic dissonance.

When it spun the drum on Jett Tuning’s dyno, the F 800 R laid down bumpy horsepower and torque curves, with pronounced dips between 4,000 and 6,000 rpm. Rear-wheel horsepower peaks at 82.1 just shy of redline, and maximum torque (57.6 lb-ft) is achieved at 6,000 rpm. Respectable figures in this class, slightly higher the Ducati Monster 796 (Rider, October 2010). The F 800 R is most responsive between 6,000 and 8,000 rpm, where horsepower increases smoothly and torque is most abundant. BMW’s BMS-KP engine management system injects fuel/air via 46mm throttle bodies. A variable-pressure fuel pump provides only the amount of fuel needed based on power demands, eliminating the need for a return system. BMW says its patented system improves power delivery, fuel efficiency and emissions. Indeed, the F 800 R had crisp throttle response without hesitation or surging. Twist the grip enthusiastically and the Euro 3-compliant exhaust system, which has a separate three-way catalytic converter and a steel silencer, emits a throaty bark. Fuel economy was also quite good; we averaged 41 mpg, which yields 172 miles from the 4.2-gallon tank.

While the F 800 ST has a carbon-fiber belt, the F 800 R uses an O-ring chain like the F 650/800 GS. The six-speed transmission shifted smoothly, and both the clutch lever and front brake lever are adjustable. For quick acceleration, the F 800 R has shorter gearing in the top three speeds than other F-bikes, which no doubt contributes to its busy feeling. Whereas the F 650/800 GS models have tubular steel trellis frames, the F 800 R and ST share an aluminum bridge-type frame that uses the engine as a stressed member, to which is attached a cast aluminum double-sided swingarm and a steel subframe. Solid and strong.

Sitting on the F 800 R for the first time, the bike felt small. Standard seat height is just 31.5 inches; an optional, no-cost low or high seat adds or subtracts an inch. I struggled with the sportbikelike tall footpegs. Good for cornering clearance, but my legs felt cramped and my knees ached after an hour.

The slender machine measures 59.8 inches between the axles and weighs 454 pounds full of fluids. A motorcycle in this category should be agile. Even if you’re not doing wheelies on the roof of the 22-story BMW Tower in Munich like Christian Pfeiffer, as an F 800 R owner chances are you’ll be slithering through traffic or narrowing chicken strips on canyon roads. And you’d be pleased with the ease at which it obeys your commands. The F 800 R has a neutral, upright riding position, a deeply dished, comfortable seat and a sensible reach to the alloy handlebars. Sporty geometry (25-degree rake, 3.6-inch trail) contributes to light, intuitive steering, and a standard steering damper keeps twitchiness in check. Bridgestone BT-014 sport tires provided neutral turn-in and good grip on dry and wet pavement. Countless U-turns on narrow roads during the photo shoot made me appreciate the ample steering lock and balanced feel. And bombing around on back roads aboard the light, tight F 800 R was a blast, exactly as it should be.

To keep the base price of the F 800 R low, BMW had to make compromises, most obviously with the suspension. Adequate for most conditions with 4.9 inches of travel at both ends, it gets a middling grade. The 43mm fork lacks adjustability and responded harshly to sharp-edged bumps. Thanks to adjustability for spring preload (via remote knob) and rebound damping, the rear shock can be dialed in for a more compliant ride. I was more impressed with the brakes, courtesy of Brembo. The dual four-piston fixed front calipers squeezed the 320mm discs with authority. The single-piston floating rear caliper could use more feel, but it got the job done. Our yellow-and-black test mule was equipped with ABS adapted from the HP2 Sport.

It uses an additional front pressure sensor to prevent unwanted activation when braking over bumps. In practice, I didn’t notice much difference. And when engaging the ABS aggressively, both the front lever and rear pedal pulsed quite a bit. Nonetheless, it was reassuring to have ABS during the multiday deluge that coincided with our road test.

Another safety feature that came in handy is the optional tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS). Once the TPMS has been programmed to the desired pressures, if psi drops by a pound, a yellow caution indicator illuminates and front/rear tire pressure overrides the odometer or tripmeter on the LCD display. If psi drops further, a red hazard indicator starts flashing. During the photo shoot, I got a low-pressure warning for the rear tire. Lo and behold, I found a nail had come along for a free ride.

As on other BMW models, the F 800 R has a single-wire CAN bus system that networks all electrical components. This reduces the bulk and complexity of a conventional wiring harness and eliminates the need for safety fuses; in case of malfunction, the system automatically deactivates the affected component and illuminates the yellow caution indicator (same one used for TPMS and low fuel). The F 800 R also features MID (Molded Interconnect Devices) technology in the switchgear. Instead of individual wiring connections, which are subject to corrosion, connections are laser etched, similar to how computer microchips are made. Following a trend on other BMW models, turn signals on the F 800 R are operated with a single push-to-cancel button on the left grip. Above the single rocker start/kill switch on the right grip, our test bike had a button for optional heated grips, which kept my hands warm on successive cold, rainy days.

The aggressive styling of the F 800 R resembles the K 1200/1300 R, a robo-looking barn burner that was dropped from BMW’s U.S. lineup awhile back but is still sold in Europe. Our test bike was fitted with a small but useful color-matched sport windscreen above the asymmetric headlights, and the yellow/black color scheme is one of four available. With no bodywork to hide the F 800 R’s skeleton and guts, the engine, frame, swingarm and cast alloy wheels are finished in black. Except for the unsightly radiator hoses on the right side, the package is tidy and purposeful. The passenger seat is generously sized and padded, and large grab handles are provided. BMW offers a full complement of options and accessories for the F 800 R. ABS, heated grips and onboard computer constitute the Premium Package, which adds $1,445 to the base price. TPMS and the sport windscreen add another $250 each. While you’ve got your checkbook out, you can add a luggage rack, saddlebags, tankbag, centerstand, service tools (to augment the meager underseat toolkit), trim pieces or an Akrapovic slip-on silencer.

According to Pieter de Waal, Vice President of BMW Motorrad USA, BMW’s product-driven approach—launching impressive models (S 1000 RR), updating favorites (R 1200 GS and RT), focusing on innovation (K 1600 GT/GTL)—has helped it double market share during the persistent global economic malaise. BMW has also worked to shed its reputation as a maker of quirky, overpriced motorcycles. With the F 800 R, which was launched in Europe for 2009 and greatly exceeded sales expectations, BMW offers American buyers a cool, sporty middleweight that is price and power competitive (and has a normal turn-signal switch!). It will be in dealer­ships by the time you read this, and we’ll put it in a comparison test soon.